Wang Dan, 23, and Guo Hai Feng, 27, were both serving four- year sentences and were due to be let out this summer. But their early release yesterday will be seen as a concession by China to international pressure over human rights amid concerns in Peking that US policy on China will be tougher under Bill Clinton. Zhu Hongsheng, a 76-year-old Roman Catholic bishop, was also freed. His 15-year sentence led to international calls for China to allow more freedom of worship.
China's human rights record will be under the spotlight this year. As well as the question of whether the United States will renew its most favoured nation trading status, China is negotiating to join the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade, and is lobbying to host the Olympic Games in the year 2000. It is embroiled in a row with Britain over plans for democratic reform in Hong Kong.
In recent months Peking has allowed a number of early releases. The official Xinhua news agency yesterday said all students imprisoned after June 1989 had now been released. But many other dissidents remain in jail. While China's economic reforms are proceeding apace, there is no sign of any political relaxation.